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  • Dr. Jacqueline Cahalan

Setting Boundaries with Kids

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. We hear this word all the time and are constantly told that they are important, but what do boundaries and boundary setting mean? And how can it be helpful with kids and families?


What is a boundary?

A boundary is a limit. A rule. A line in the sand. Boundaries set clear expectations set clear expectations for what is acceptable in a given environment or with certain people. Boundaries help us to both physically and emotionally protect ourselves and our loved ones.


Why are boundaries important?

Boundaries help keep people safe and also allow everyone to co-exist in a way that demonstrates respect for everyone’s individual needs. We set boundaries to preserve what is important to us by holding back what is unhealthy or what can have a negative impact on our well-being. They also keep everyone happier because they help to create a stable environment where expectations are consistent and predictable, which is optimal for encouraging positive growth and development.


How do I establish appropriate boundaries for my family?

1. Discuss why there is a need for a boundary. What is the problem and how is the boundary likely to mitigate it? Having good communication about the boundary allows everyone to be aware of it and to also understand the reason for it (even if they disagree).

  • Sample language: “Watching tv in the morning is getting in the way of you being ready for school on time, which causes stress for everyone. The tv needs to stay off until you have brushed your teeth, made your lunch, and packed your backpack.”


2. Determine the consequences for crossing the boundary. Try to choose something related to the issue, or allow for natural consequences when possible.

  • Sample language (For younger kids): You keep running around the store. It isn’t safe and you are getting in other people’s way, so now you need to hold my hand.

  • Sample language (For older kids, natural consequences): You are responsible for doing your own laundry. So if you wash your things regularly, your favorite clothes won’t be ready to wear.


3. Be consistent. Once you have established the boundary, stick to it. Your kids will likely challenge it to see if it will hold, but if you enforce it consistently, they will learn to respect it. If you are inconsistent, kids will continually look for opportunities to cross it. If possible, sticking to a schedule or routine can help with this.

  • For example: Bedtime routine starts at the same time every night, and activities occur in the same order. Everyone knows exactly what to expect. This can help eliminate arguments about extra screen-time, snacks, or what time they should go to sleep.


4. Validate the feeling while gently but firmly holding your limit. Your kids may not like the boundaries that you set, and that is okay. You can validate their feelings while still holding the limit.

  • Sample language: I know you are mad that it is time to turn off the video games. I get it- video games are fun. But it is bedtime and you need your sleep so that you are rested for school tomorrow. Either you turn it off by yourself or I’m going to do it for you.


5. Allow space for autonomy. It is important to decide where an appropriate limit is, but within the confines of that, allow your children to make their own choices and decisions. This will help them develop a sense of competence and autonomy. It will help them learn to make decisions, learn about their unique personal likes and dislikes, and develop new skills.


A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Although they may complain about them, kids often secretly like boundaries. Consistent, appropriate boundaries can help create a system of trust because kids learn that they are used to help keep them safe. They will often test boundaries, and that is okay. As kids, it is part of their job to test a limit from time to time to see if it holds.


  • As kids grow and develop, boundaries can (and should) be renegotiated. It is healthy for kids to seek more autonomy as they grow. Boundaries should be scaffolded to gradually allow an increasing amount of independence. If your child is consistently violating a boundary to the point where you you feel that they are not using good judgment or being safe, it can be tightened or readjusted as needed.


  • Family or household boundaries teach kids how to establish personal boundaries. When kids learn that it is okay to have limits for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable within a certain environment, it also helps them learn to set limits for themselves. For example, it is healthy for them to learn to determine what types of physical contact they like or don’t like, and with whom. Or setting boundaries regarding who is allowed access to their personal possessions, and under what circumstances. This is an important ability for kids to develop and sets the foundation for an understanding of consent.


  • Parents often worry that kids may have trouble adhering to certain boundaries and expectations but children can often rise to the occasion and show that they are capable of a lot more responsibility than they are often given credit for. It may take some time but they get used to it- more consistent enforcement means that kids will learn more quickly

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